A Birthday Dinner for Poppa


Mateo’s birthday was on Sunday. Not being able to find babysitting was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed for a wonderful birthday dinner to come together at home with the family. The birthday boy asked that I choose the menu, but requested something simple, so we could spend our day out-and-about doing things together as a family. This is the special menu that I created for Mateo’s will-taste-like-we-slaved-away-all-day-but-really-didn’t-birthday meal:

A Birthday Dinner for Mateo

»        Butter lettuce with roasted golden beets, avocado with citrus, shallot vinaigrette and salty sunflower seeds

»        Pasta with slow-cooked pork and beef sugo

»        Flourless Scharffenberger chocolate cake

Early on Saturday morning, just after breakfast, Caleb and I ventured out to go shopping for the dinner ingredients in the North Berkeley neighborhood of Northbrae. I love this part of the world where you can walk from the coffee shop, to the pizza slice shop (Gioia Pizzeria – the most amazing New York-style, thin crust pizza by the slice), to the horticulture center (where we play with the wind chimes and watch the coy fish swimming in the small pond), to the butcher, to the fish counter, then finally to Monterey Market – my favorite place to shop for produce on the planet! I love this market because you can find the most obscure produce there – cactus fruit, any variety of mushroom you can imagine (including truffles), yellow kiwis, sweet lemons, fresh olives for brining, etc., not to mention 30 varieties of anything else you need. I’m the crazy person who brings visiting friends and relatives to this market – rather than to Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz – to show them just how much variety they can find in one store. Really…to say that I love Monterey Market is an understatement. Okay, so moving on…

Monterey Market

First, we went to Magnani’s, the local butcher, and bought the meat for the pasta sauce. For a treat, I purchased a few slices of mortadella (Italian, for “flippin delicious!”), which Caleb and I devoured together sitting outside Magnani’s, on their bench in the cold. We were having such a sweet time, quietly munching on our mortadella, watching our breath in the cold air. I took many mental photos of our perfect moment.

Once at Monterey Market, we gathered the ingredients on our shopping list. I thought I was going to lose it because Caleb kept picking up every apple in the store (I exaggerate slightly), asking excitedly, “Momma, can we weigh this?” as he’d throw the apples in the bin of the large metal scale, no doubt bruising the poor, unsuspecting apples. Feeling the Jewish guilt rise up, I purchased and brought home many of the battered orphans that I couldn’t rescue in time from Caleb’s enthusiasm to weigh things. It finally occurred to me to contain Caleb in a shopping cart and placate him with one of the Bread Workshop’s amazing hand twisted pretzels. This worked beautifully!  We left the market with our relationship intact and brought all of the goodies home for the special meal.

I began cooking the sugo on Saturday, shortly after returning from the market. I started the recipe on the stove top and once I had browned the onions, garlic, and meat, I moved the remaining ingredients to the slow cooker where the sauce cooked for three hours. While we were out doing fun things, our sauce was wafting gorgeous smells throughout the house. We came home and just couldn’t stop inhaling to take it all in. On Sunday morning, before breakfast, I took the refrigerated sauce and put it in the processor until I had a sauce with small chunks of meat. I then placed it back in the slow cooker on high at first, then low to concentrate the flavors for a few more hours.


While the sauce simmered away, Caleb and I made the chocolate cake. I enjoyed watching Caleb as he gently whisked the chocolate and butter together standing on a chair over the double boiler. He then helped me combine all of the ingredients, then licked every possible utensil and bowl he could find. Okay, I did too!

On Sunday eve, Caleb and I served Poppa his special birthday dinner. The pasta and sauce were amazing and reminded me of the wonderful sugo at Trattoria Corso in Berkeley that Mateo and I love (which is what I was trying to replicate), and the cake was rich, dense chocolate goodness, and out of this world! Mateo was very happy with his special meal and I truly enjoyed sitting at the table and savoring the experience in the glow of the candles with Caleb, Sadie, and my husband who I’m so fortunate to have another wonderful year with.

Happy Birthday, Myteo!

I’ve included the recipes for the pasta and the cake, but not the salad, which is almost self-explanatory. If you would like me to send you the recipe for the dressing, just let me know.

Pasta with Slow-Cooked Pork and Beef Sugo

Pasta with Slow-Cooked Pork and Beef Sugo

My take on a Mario Batali recipe for Ragu Napoletano from the Molto Italiano cookbook. Starting one day ahead and using a slow-cooker, I made this recipe much easier to tend to so that we could do other fun things on Mateo’s big day.


¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

10 oz pork shoulder or butt, cut into chunks

8 oz boneless beef chuck, cut into chunks

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 onion, finely chopped

6-8 cloves of thinly sliced garlic cloves

1 cup dry red wine

Two, 28-oz of canned San Marzano tomatoes, w/ juice passed through mill or food processor

8 oz sweet Italian sausages

Pinch of pepper flakes (optional)

Flat leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped for garnish


  1. In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat until smoking. Season the pork and beef with salt and pepper to taste, and sear, in batches to avoid overcrowding, until dark golden brown. Transfer to a plate. Remove sausage casings and brown the sausage, breaking into small pieces. Set aside once cooked – can be slightly undercooked as it will cook more in the sauce.
  2. Add the onion to the pan and sauté, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to loosen brown bits, until golden brown and very soft, after a while, add the garlic, about 10 minutes to cook both. Transfer onions/garlic to a slow cooker / crock-pot and turn on high. Add the wine, browned meat, tomatoes, and pepper flakes and keep on high for 2 hours. Reduce the heat to a low and cook for one (or more) hour, stirring occasionally and skimming off the fat as necessary and breaking the meat down into smaller pieces.

Remove from the heat and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. For meatier meat sauce, which is what I wanted, transfer cooled sauce to a food processor in two batches and pulse until meat has broken down, but don’t over process. Return to slow cooker or pot (on stove) and heat until ready to serve. Use right away or cool.

Freeze what you don’t use and save for another occasion! Makes approx 3 quarts. 

Cook’s note: I recommend purchasing fresh, hand cut pasta to go with this, or dried hand-made pasta, which is what I used this time. When ready to serve, I use tongs to gently combine the fresh pasta with plenty of the meat sauce, then twist and place a neat serving in the middle of a shallow bowl, adding a little extra sauce to the top. I then sprinkle some high-quality olive oil over the pasta and grate fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese over the top and add chopped parsley.

Caleb and the Cake

Flourless Scharffen Berger Chocolate Cake

Adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook

This is a very easy cake to put together. Don’t tell Mateo! Can be prepared in 45 minutes or less.

Yield: Makes one 8-inch cake


4 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate – I use Scharffen Berger 60%
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened Scharffen Berger cocoa powder plus additional for sprinkling


Preheat oven to 375°F and butter an 8-inch round baking pan. Line bottom with a round of wax paper and butter paper.

Chop chocolate into small pieces. In a double boiler or metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water melt chocolate with butter, stirring, until smooth. Remove top of double boiler or bowl from heat and whisk sugar into chocolate mixture. Add eggs and whisk well. Sift 1/2 cup cocoa powder over chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Pour batter into pan and bake in middle of oven 25 minutes, or until top has formed a thin crust. Cool cake in pan on a rack 5 minutes and invert onto a serving plate.

Dust cake with additional cocoa powder and serve with vanilla ice cream or vanilla, whipped cream if desired.

Rhymes with Shmorty-One!


11 thoughts on “A Birthday Dinner for Poppa

  1. Happy shmorty-first birthday, dear Mateo! May you have a wonderful new birthday year. Anya and Caleb did themselves proud with the birthday feast! Yumyumyum! Congratulations to the chefs.


  2. Anya, I didn’t know that you were such a wonderful writer and photographer in addition to being a great cook! Thanks for the lovely “instructions” for a fun weekend and birthday celebration!

  3. Amazing! Sounds delicious and so sweet, thanks for sharing. Now I’ve got the ‘working for the weekend’ monday morning blues.

  4. WOW!!!! What an amazing adventure you had. Your family is so special and I feel lucky to be able to share some of your experiences.

  5. Belated reply… but, thank you so much bub for my birthday dinner. That was truly amazing and I can still taste my flourless chocolate torte.

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